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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macdonald, Alexander John (1916–1973)

by Peter Kirkpatrick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Alexander John Hilton Macdonald (1916-1973), journalist, was born on 19 August 1916 at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, only child of Alexander Macdonald, a mining engineer from Scotland, and his Sydney-born wife Naomi, née Hingston. While young Alexander boarded at the Benedictine abbey school at Fort Augustus, Scotland, his father regularly sent him books; the lad eagerly consumed everything from The Boys' Own Annual to Dostoyevsky, and resolved to become a writer. He returned to Sydney in 1936 and worked with his father at a goldmine near Thornborough, North Queensland. There he wrote 'Day Must Break', an improbable blank-verse tragedy set during the first Punic War; staged at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, in November 1937, it was a 'monumental flop'. By this time he was a continuity writer with the Australian Broadcasting Commission and a 'boon companion' of Peter Finch, sharing a series of flats with him at Kings Cross. At St Jude's Anglican Church, Randwick, on 27 November 1943 Macdonald married Nona Maud Noble, a 25-year-old secretary.

His talent clearly lay in comedy. At the A.B.C., Macdonald wrote scripts for Dick Bentley. He then shifted to radio 2UE, and in 1945 joined the Colgate-Palmolive Radio Unit where, with Fred Parsons, he scripted the phenomenally popular 'McCackie Mansion', starring Roy Rene. The pair also wrote for Jack Davey, Willie Fennell, and Dorothy Foster and Rita Pauncefort ('Ada and Elsie'), among many others. Macdonald began writing radio reviews for Smith's Weekly in 1947, and later turned his hand to film and theatre criticism. In 1952 he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph. His humorous columns became such a feature that a selection was published as Don't Frighten the Horses (Melbourne, 1961). He had a gift for word-play and comic absurdity—the 'surly leprechaun' Chauncy Pilgarlic became a motif—but lacked the demotic touch of Lennie Lower, with whom he was often compared. In the 1960s he wrote and reviewed for other Sydney newspapers, including the Daily Mirror and Sydney Morning Herald.

A short man, with what Douglas Stewart described as 'extraordinary eyes like oysters', Macdonald was an old-style bohemian, 'constantly embroiled in conflicts with creditors, editors, bank managers and women'. He was unsuited to domesticity, and his marriage was dissolved in 1958. Nevertheless, on 26 July 1961 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, he married with Catholic rites Beverley Jane Burnell, a 20-year-old typist. Macdonald became a fixture at the Journalists' Club. There he wrote much of his copy and for some years was an inactive board-member. With Edgar Holt, Cyril Pearl, Kenneth Slessor and others, he formed the Condiments Club, dedicated to good food and fine wine. In 1970 he was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship to write his autobiography, The Ukulele Player Under the Red Lamp (1972).

Survived by his wife and their two sons, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, Macdonald died of complications of hepatic cirrhosis on 17 December 1973 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. When Finch heard of his death he kept an agreement, made in their youth, 'that the survivor should pay for a round of drinks at the Journos'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Stewart, A Man of Sydney (Melb, 1977)
  • E. Dundy, Finch, Bloody Finch (Lond, 1980)
  • R. Campbell, The Road to Oxalis Cottage (Lond, 1984)
  • D. Angel, The Journalists' Club, Sydney (Syd, 1985)
  • Australian Journalists' Association, Copy, Feb-Mar 1974
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Dec 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1969, 10 Dec 1970, 22 Dec 1973, 8 Apr 1974.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Kirkpatrick, 'Macdonald, Alexander John (1916–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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